College, funding and accountability

Spunky Homeschool has a post up this morning about the education department’s efforts to get involved in setting standards by which colleges can be evaluated in order to make them more effective. She’s not a fan of testing, but I do agree that colleges need to have transparent measures of success that people can see what they can expect to get for their time and money. I’m thinking statistics like percentage of students attending who graduate, average time it takes to graduate, employment statistics and income for graduates for different programs, number of students needing remedial classes and such.
However, I think that the much larger issue is accessibility to a college education. This is a problem which starts in grade school and high school. Our education system is so disfunctional that a person can spend 13 years getting an education and be qualified to work for McDonalds. And we wonder why in some areas the drop out rate is so high. Somehow I doubt “spend 13 years locked in a classroom and you to can get a job flipping burgers!” is a real compelling message for many kids. Even if the kids do manage to get through school and cobble together funding to get to college, many of them find that after all the time they put into their education they aren’t even prepared to do 100 level college work and must waste time and money re-learning things they should have mastered in high school. And then, even if they’re able to make it through that rigmarole, odds are excellent that they will be unable to maintain the funding needed to pay for college and will drop out anyhow – probably with a bunch of student loans in tow. What a system!
Of course, these days a college degree is a prerequisite to success. However, despite no real increase in people’s ability to fund a college education, more and more of the costs of obtaining one are being passed to students. But even this isn’t being done in a way which leads to greater accountability for colleges and more careful actions by students. Most students today are funding a large portion of their education with student loans. I don’t care what financial people say about them, student loans are horrible, evil things and I would rather see my children take 10 years to get a degree than take out a single dollar of student loans. It is so hard to get started in this world today – you must have a degree, you cannot possibly get a job paying enough to pay for one without a degree, housing costs take up twice as much disposable income for young people today as they did for their parents, many places won’t even rent to you if you’re under 23 without a co-signer, starting salaries have barely budged in the last 10 years while inflation has gone up almost 30% (it takes 30% longer for a young person today to buy what they need than it did 10 years ago) and on and on. Add on 20K in student loan debts and you see people putting off getting married, having children or even choosing to put the child in day care once it’s born in large part because a young couple can easily start life with a combined 40K in student loan debt! I’m a bit of a crybaby on this issue, but I view it as one of the failures of the last 20-30 years that our society has made it so hard for young people to make good choices like getting a good education, starting a family and caring for one’s own children. I once heard it said that it is not the government’s job to force people to be good, but that it should work to create an environment where it is easy to choose to be good. Personally, I think that at both a societal and governmental level we have utter and completely failed to accomplish this simple goal.
What makes all this so bad is that not only are we not making college accessible, despite having made it essential, but none of this has resulted in more efficiency or accountability in college education. Most young people aren’t actually paying for their educations. Heck, college is so expensive that it’s not even realistic that they could. Mom and Dad chip in a bit, maybe they get some grants or some scholarship money and they take out student loans. Student loans are free money to someone 18-21. Let’s face it, the ages 18-21 aren’t exactly known for being years of wisdom, temperance and self-denial. Somewhere in their minds they know they have to pay the money back, but when you’re 18 and have never had to take care of one’s self financially, paying off such a large amount of money simple cannot be comprehended. And besides, financial people always say that student loans are “good debt”. So they spend loan money with even less regard than they would show to their parent’s money and colleges are still insulated from market effects.
All this has been a very long lead-up to a column I wanted to share which I think has a very good alternative to funding college which should make colleges more accessible, more affordable and more accountable. The basic idea is that rather than funding colleges directly, all money from government would go directly to students to spend as they see fit. In this way students will actually have an incentive to shop around since it is entirely feasible that they could pay for their entire education with their voucher money. (As it is, they know they can’t pay for college, so many don’t even try which is part of what makes student loans so insidious – there’s often no real alternative.) If they know the government money will run out in four years, they are far more likely to buckle down and get the job done. Colleges, since they would no longer be propped up by easy, un-earned government money, would actively have to compete in ways they don’t today, both in terms of cost and quality. And they’d have a much harder time justifying some of the more egregious excesses colleges sometimes engage in. If you could actually get students to think in terms of “this is going to push tuition past what my voucher will cover” rather than “wow – cool” that would be a great accomplishment.
Anyhow, this probably isn’t one of my better written posts. This is a subject that bugs me. If you made it through the whole think – thanks. Now go write your congress person or something!

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